The Disastrous Expedition Of Sir John Franklin

Find out about the 1845 expedition of Sir John Franklin that claimed the lives of all 129 of it's members.

In the latter part of the Eighteenth century, British, Canadian and French explorers were in a race to find a passage through the Canadian wilderness to the Pacific - the Northwest Passage. While such hardy adventurers as Alexander McKenzie headed south in search of the Passage, there were others who went in the opposite direction. To the North lay the foreboding ice-packed Arctic. It took a truly hardy explorer to venture into it's domain.

The first white man to do just that was Samuel Hearne. Hearne was a trapper who had been sent out by the Hudson's Bay Company in 1771 to find the Northwest Passage. But Hearne only made it to the Arctic Coast before turning back. He wrote of his exploits, "Once, upward of seven days, we tasted not a mouthful of anything except a few cranberries, scraps of old leather, and burnt bones."

Hearne's failure seemed to dampen the ardour of others. There was a gap of fully fifty years before another attempt was made into the Arctic wilds. But then an offer of a twenty thousand pound prize by the British government got the action rolling once more. Three expeditions were led by Sir John Franklin, the first of which was in 1819-21. Franklin's men rowed in canoes when they could but, more often than not, had to - along with their dogs - pull along their sledge mounted canoes on the ice of Arctic Lakes. According to Franklin's diary accounts, the ice "lacerated the feet at every step. The poor dogs, too, marked their path with their blood." But travelling through waters was no more pleasant. The boats were constantly in danger of being ripped apart by the masses of ice that they negotiated themselves around. Quite often dangerously sharp pieces of ice would break off from these ice mountains.

Despite the hardships Franklin's men were able to survey more than 1,800 miles of the Arctic Coast. They proved that there was no land barrier that would prevent an ocean passage across the Western half of Canada's Arctic coast.

Franklin's next expedition was to encompass the years between 1825 and 1827. Again his company retraced Hearne's earlier route and then their own course of four years earlier. This time they pushed further, exploring more of the frozen coastline.

It took nearly twenty years before Franklin again ventured in the Arctic frontier of Canada's Northwest. In 1845 he volunteered for a sailing expedition that had as it's objective to find a clear passage across the top of the North American Continent. Franklin set out from England with all of the latest equipment and supplies he could ask for. With his 129 men he sailed away in the ships, Davis Strait and Baffin Bay. Those who waved off their loved ones were never to see them again. As the years passed and no news from the expedition was forthcoming, those back home began to get nervous. Finally a search expedition was sent out in search of Franklin and his men. In the fourteen years since the Franklin expedition set out as many as forty search expeditions were sent out to find trace of the ill fated adventurers. Finally something concrete was found. A small boat off King Edward Island near Camp Crozier was come across. Inside the boat were two skeletons and a bag containing silk handkerchiefs and silver teaspoons. The teaspoons were engraved with the crest of the Franklin family.

Ironically one of the search parties sent out to find Franklin did manage to achieve the end that Franklin had set out to do - to find a way across the top of the North American Continent. This distinction went to Captain Robert McLure who, in 1851, entered the Arctic Ocean from the Pacific and sailed on an easterly route for some 1,000 miles. At that point they became icebound. For more than two years they struggled to get out of this icy wasteland. Finally, on April 19th, 1853 McLure and his men were forced to set off on foot. They reached Dealy Islet and civilisation. They had actual proof that a Northwest Passage did, in fact exist. The problem was that it was virtually impossible to navigate, even during the summer time. The search for a Northwest Passage was finally over, at the cost of over a hundred lives.

© High Speed Ventures 2011